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2012 GOP race looks open and unpredictable (from Iowa)

Now that the 2010 midterm elections are over, tongues have already started wagging over who the potential Republican presidential candidates may be in 2012.

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 3:46 PM

DES MOINES - Sarah Palin isn't the only potential Republican presidential candidate keeping the party guessing. Rarely have there been so many questions surrounding so many candidates as there are right now about the GOP's possible White House field for 2012.

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Republicans long have followed a familiar pattern: nominate the heir apparent, the next in line, the front-runner. In many previous years, the identity of that person was obvious. That didn't preclude a crowded field or a competitive race, but the outcome seemed, in the end, preordained. Not this time.

Most voters won't begin paying serious attention to the contest for the Republican nomination until much closer to the primaries. But in Iowa, where party caucuses will formally start the race in early 2012, reading tea (and "tea party") leaves is a preoccupation for party activists. What they see is a pattern of uncertainty.

"As I talk to my fellow Republicans, I don't sense there's any coalescence around anybody," said Dave Roederer, who oversaw campaign operations in Iowa for George W. Bush and John McCain. "In my opinion, it's a wait-and-see as to who's around and who gets in and who doesn't. I've never seen it like this."

The Republican nomination contest has started slowly. At this time four years ago, Iowa had been overrun for months with presidential candidates - Democrats and Republicans. They were campaigning for candidates, meeting activists, signing up operatives and competing for endorsements. This year, the activity has been kept to a minimum.

Partly that's because Republicans are heavily focused on maximizing their possible gains in the November midterm elections. Partly it's because prospective candidates are watching their potential rivals for clues as to who will run and, more important, how. Partly it's because the party is in the middle of an internal battle.

The anti-establishment fervor inside the party, which has played out repeatedly in Senate primaries this year, has the potential to scramble the battle for the GOP nomination in 2012. Every candidate, particularly anyone who is at all identified as part of the establishment, is grappling with how to accommodate the new mood inside the party.

Palin has best captured that mood with her endorsements of tea party-backed candidates and her challenges to the party establishment. Her star power is obvious. Her appearance here Friday night drew the largest crowd in the history of the Iowa GOP's Ronald Reagan Dinner fundraiser.

But will Palin run for president? And if she does, can she go the distance? Opinions on both differ greatly within the party. In the audience Friday night were many Iowans who want her to run and say they will support her if she does and others who found her speech too defensive and filled with references that flew over the heads of Iowans.

Veterans of past campaigns also question whether someone who communicates mostly through Facebook and Twitter, who has developed few real relationships with party leaders in the states, who operates in an unorthodox fashion can put together the kind of disciplined organization generally required to win the nomination.

"Caucusgoers are used to be communicated with one on one and in groups," said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance and Iowa GOP national committeeman. "She'll have to employ those tactics in the very near future if she wants to run for president."

The competition for religious and social conservatives in Iowa could be fierce. Palin would appeal to many of them. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who won the caucuses four years ago, retains a church-based network that could be reactivated if he runs. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has visited the state. One Iowa strategist called him "as authentic a culture warrior as there is in the bunch."

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